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Claymores and compellence

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The unprecedented violence that has gripped Sri Lanka’s Northeast lately has alarmed observers of the island’s protracted conflict and sparked fears of a return to all out war. Apart from the continuing cycle of targeted killings in the shadow war between the Liberation Tigers and Sri Lankan military intelligence, there are two new aspects to the violence. One is the violent public protests in Jaffna against Sri Lankan security forces (and the latter’s heavy handed responses). The other, and for many, the most alarming, is the series of devastating claymore attacks which have killed over sixty soldiers and sailors since mid December.

Despite the LTTE’s formal denials, for many it is the only actor capable of carrying out such lethal attacks – a point underscored by the destruction last Friday of a Sri Lanka Navy gunboat in which another dozen sailors were killed. Moreover, these attacks are taking amid a general campaign of harassment gun and grenade attacks against military positions and patrols, particularly in Jaffna.

The sudden and unpredicted escalation in the violence last month and, in particular, the heavy casualties have convinced many observers that a full-blown war is only a short time away. The escalation, many also feel, is part of a general buildup towards such an eventuality that the LTTE is pursuing – the Tigers are, it is argued, attempting to goad the Sri Lankan military into a truce-shattering retaliation. Perhaps. But a closer look at the dynamics of the Sri Lanka’s peace process lends weight to another view: the LTTE is driving the new government of President Mahinda Rajapakse not to war, but to the table.

To begin with, compared to the attacks which characterized past LTTE guerrilla campaigns, the recent attacks are neither as sustained nor, for that matter, as lethal as they could quite easily be. Whilst undoubtedly raising the strain on the military, the recent attacks are not yet inflicting unbearable casualties nor seriously disrupting military operations in the localities where they are taking place. A cursory study of the campaign the LTTE unleashed in the eastern province (of which the Special Task Force suffered the brunt) in the wake of its retreat from Jaffna in 1995 reveals its true capability for guerilla warfare. And that was ten years ago.

However, alongside the degrading security situation in the Northeast, a number of crucial, albeit begrudging, policy changes in Colombo over the past few weeks suggest a slow drift towards, not away, from talks. Of course, both the government and the LTTE both regularly assert their commitment to negotiations. But in the latter part of 2005, President Rajapakse came to be seen - for a variety of valid reasons - as a hardliner opposed to compromise and a negotiated peace - so much so his very election to office, assisted to a great degree by a controversial Tamil boycott, plunged many peace advocates into despair. But now, despite his tough positioning before the polls, President Rajapakse is being steadily impelled down the path to negotiations with the LTTE.

Amongst the most clear-cut positions on the peace process that Mr. Rajapakse and his Sinhala nationalist allies, the JVP and the JHU, adopted before the November 17 polls were: (1) a rejection of Norway as peace broker (2) an immediate redrafting of the February 2002 ceasefire agreement (CFA) and (3) a restriction of future talks to Sri Lankan soil – a long-overdue reassertion of sovereignty, in their view.

Mr. Rajapakse’s manifesto was unequivocal: “The [ceasefire] agreement had been reached without the consensus of the people of the country. Attempts were made to forcibly put this agreement on the public.” As a consequence, Mr. Rajapakse said, “I will readjust the CFA in a manner that terrorist activities have no place. I will take remedial action after reviewing the CFA monitoring process.”

As for peace talks, he declared: “I will give the LTTE a specific time frame and a specific agenda [for talks].” That agenda moreover, could comprise, “Ending separatism, Disarming, Entering the democratic process [and] Final solution and its implementation.”

As for international involvement: “[The crisis] has spread throughout the country, without being confined to the north and east. It has spread over the region and even internationally. The interference of outsiders has complicated the issue.” Criticising his opposition, Mr. Rajapakse added, more pointedly: “I believe that the intervention of foreign countries into our problems have been unnecessarily created [by the UNP].” Briefing reporters at the manifesto launch, Mr. Rajapakse’s chief election campaigner – and now Foreign Minister – Mangala Samaraweera declared: “The role of Norwegian facilitation and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) will be reviewed immediately. They are not actually doing what they should be doing and we will review it.”

Indeed, in his key speeches soon after winning the November 17 polls, Mr. Rajapakse pointedly ignored Norway’s offer – issued within hours of his victory being announced - to resume peace brokering. Instead, he made it clear that he preferred India to take over - and, essentially, coerce the LTTE to the table on Colombo’s terms. But even as Delhi - for a number of domestic and international reasons - deftly avoided becoming mired once again in Sri Lanka’s quagmire, events on the ground took a turn for the worse.

Whilst the violent protests – and the numerous gun and grenade attacks - that erupted in Jaffna in late November startled many observers, the two claymore attacks of December 4th and 6th - each of which killed at least six soldiers and wounded many more - sent shockwaves through Mr. Rajapakse’s government. On December 7th, Colombo issued a statement: “President Rajapakse [has] invited the Royal Norwegian Government to continue its role as facilitator to the Peace Process in Sri Lanka.” Furthermore, the statement said, he had met with the four Co-chairs - US, UK (EU Presidency) Japan and Norway - “to brief them on his on-going consultations and preparatory work for the continuation of the peace process.”

Amidst the uproar over the blasts themselves, many missed the significance of not one, but two u-turns that Mr. Rajapakse had made – on Norway, in particular, and international involvement in general. But there was more to come.

The vexed issue of the venue promptly surfaced – just as it had three months earlier amid international pressure (renewed in the wake of the assassination of Foreign Lakshman Kadirgamar )for talks on stabilizing the CFA. The problem was quite simple: Sri Lankan did not want talks outside the island, the LTTE did. This, moreover, was because an international venue, Colombo argued, would accord the LTTE undue recognition and legitimacy. Instead the government – of outgoing President Chandrika Kumaratunga, in which Rajapakse was Premier - suggested no man's land. Rejecting this on security grounds, the LTTE insisted on talks either in Kilinochchi, which it controlled, or in Norway - “a neutral venue and one of few countries where we are not banned.” The government rejected both. Oslo’s rather desperate ‘compromise’ suggestion of Colombo airport as a venue was rejected by the LTTE. Amid disagreement over the venue, Norwegian peace efforts promptly foundered anew.

However, a few days after the first two claymores exploded (as well as a couple of near misses and the discovery of more unexploded mines), there was another u-turn in Colombo. On December 11, Japanese Special Peace Envoy, Yasushi Akashi, who was visiting the island declared - out of the blue- that President Rajapakse’s government was prepared to hold talks “outside Sri Lanka.” Japan, he added, was placing an offer to host the negotiations on the table. The LTTE - for reasons many observers feel are linked to a threatened European Union ban - has again said it wants talks to be held in Oslo and the wrangling continues. But amid the imbroglio, the significance of yet another retreat by Mr. Rajapakse and the Sinhala hardliners was lost.

There is also, in contrast to pre-poll tub-thumping, a noticeable prudence in Colombo. Despite undisguised anger and customary rhetoric, the government is demonstrably wary of further escalations. This week a claymore tore through another military vehicle, killing ten more sailors. But in contrast to the dismissive, even contemptuous attitude laid out in his manifesto, Mr. Rajapakse is shying away from excessive vitriol. Indeed, as government spokesman Nimal Siripala de Silva told reporters Thursday, “the president has asked the armed forces not to provoke the LTTE and to abide by the cease-fire agreement.”

Colombo’s reversals on key positions are arguably impelled by the sharp rise in violence over the past few weeks. No doubt Delhi’s pointed refusal to get involved in Sri Lanka’s peace process – and the Co-chairs repeated insistence even now that talks must be held with the LTTE are factors, but then these are not newly adopted positions. For students of international politics, however, the dynamic at play in Sri Lanka could be captured by the notion of coercive diplomacy (or compellence as it is sometimes referred to): the use of threats or limited force to persuade an opponent to call off or undo an undesirable course of action.

It began on November 27 with an explicit statement by LTTE Vellupillai Pirapaharan. “The new government should come forward soon with a reasonable political framework that will satisfy the political aspirations of the Tamil people,” he said. “If the new government rejects our urgent appeal, opts for a hard-line position and adopts delaying tactics, we will, next year, in solidarity with our people, intensify our struggle for self-determination, our struggle for national liberation to establish self-government in our own homeland.”

Notably, although the LTTE leader criticized Colombo’s rejection of the interim self-governing authority (ISGA) and the Post-Tsunami Operations and Management Structure (P-TOMS), he did not demand their revival, insisting instead on ‘a reasonable political framework that will satisfy the political aspirations of the Tamil people.’ President Rajapakse – who even earned a compliment as ‘a realist, committed to pragmatic politics’ – thus has been offered a very wide door to walk through.

But, from the LTTE's perspective, the President has an immediate responsibility before that – to end Colombo’s ongoing support for anti-LTTE paramilitaries and their shadow war against the Tigers. As Mr. Pirapaharan made clear, “disarming the Tamil paramilitary groups is an obligation of the state under terms of the Ceasefire Agreement.”

Theorising the practice of Coercive Diplomacy in 'Force and Statecraft: Diplomatic Problems of Our Time', academics Gordon Craig and Alexander George list the three essential components of an ultimatum as: “a specific, clear demand, a time limit for compliance, and a threat of punishment for non-compliance which is both credible and sufficiently potent to impress upon the opponent that compliance is preferable.” All three elements can clearly be seen in the LTTE leader’s Heroes Day speech.

But for coercive diplomacy to work, Craig and George argue, the coercer must create in the opponent’s mind: “a sense of urgency for compliance with its demand; a belief that the coercer is more highly motivated to achieve its stated demand than the opponent is to oppose it, and a fear of unacceptable escalation if the demand is not accepted.” It can be confidently argued that the intermittent, but devastating claymore attacks of the past six weeks are arguably doing just that.

Coercive diplomacy must be distinguished from pure coercion, Craig and George point out: the former “seeks to persuade the opponent to cease his aggression, rather than bludgeon him into stopping.” The combination of threats and exemplary uses of force are intended to persuade the opponent to back down - rather than stopping it with brute force. Coercive diplomacy thus calls for “just enough force to demonstrate one’s resolve and the credibility of one’s determination to use more force is necessary.” It also demands “one gives the opponent an opportunity to [comply] before escalating.”

The intermittent, yet persistent attacks on Sri Lankan security forces can be seen as fitting such a pattern, rather than one of an inexorable and deliberate build up to a major confrontation with Sri Lanka’s military. For almost two years, the LTTE has been engaged in an escalating shadow war against Army-backed paramilitaries which international ceasefire monitors say has killed hundreds of people - LTTE cadres, paramilitaries, intelligence officers and civilians. The escalation of the past few weeks can thus be understood as a shift by the LTTE from using sheer force to deter Colombo to using a phased series of compelling pressures instead.

That Colombo must end its support for the paramilitary groups is not, in itself, a new demand. But there undoubtedly is, now, a sense of urgency that has galvanized the major actors in the peace process. Following this logic, the trajectory of Sri Lanka’s violence can be judged from the likelihood or not of whether President Rajapakse’s government will heed the advice of the Co-Chairs, who last September declaring they “deplore the activities of paramilitary groups, which fuel the cycle of violence and unrest,” demanded Colombo “disarm or relocate these groups from the north and east.”

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